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Rediscovering the Great British Republican Tradition


For a Civic and Constitutional Republic


                                         Issue No 37 Friday 22 May 2009




This week


·         How To Release The “Arthritic Grip On The Windpipe Of Our Democracy”


News Stories

Highlighting  news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.





·         How To Release The “Arthritic Grip On The Windpipe Of Our Democracy”

With the constant drip-drip-drip of revelations regarding MP’s fiddling, or sometimes fraudulently fabricating, expenses claims, the political atmosphere is becoming increasingly febrile.  Perhaps each week’s key political event as far as public broadcasting is concerned occurs on Thursday evening with BBC1’s Question Time followed by Andrew Neil’s This Week.  In an unprecedented move this week, this pairing was advanced by an hour in the TV schedule, purely to enable a greater number of people to watch them both before retiring. In particular, Question Time the week before had shown a very lively, passionate and even angry debate. The sequel was clearly of interest to a lot of people.

A week on from last week’s broadcast the atmosphere, and with it the agenda, seems to have moved on. Whereas before we were just engulfed in a scandal involving our elected representatives we are now, it seems, plunged into a constitutional crisis. We have moved on from simply trying to fix the way expenses are claimed, calling people to account and even prosecuting the criminally guilty. And with the forced resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons this is even being described as “yesterday’s story”.

The implication is that the expenses crisis has exposed something deeper that is wrong with the House of Commons and its place in the constitution.  This will hardly be news to readers of this column.  The problem of having an emasculated house controlled by the parties and the executive, i.e. the prime minister and their inner circle in the Cabinet, is an essential fault of our political system. Or as Martin Bell on Question Time expressed it in glorious mixed-up medical metaphors “the parties have an arthritic grip on the windpipe of our democracy”.  This is, of course, a prime problem that we need a republican constitution to correct.

So, yes, we need constitutional reform. And how! But what we are getting is a whole smorgasbord of ill thought out proposals from people who have never previously demonstrated any great interest in the subject but now consider themselves expert enough to make suggestions as to how we are going to “fix” the constitution once and for all. It has been said that this may be a “1832 moment” when the “unthinkable becomes thinkable”, that there is a dawning realization that we need real constitutional change and that the current crisis offers a “once in a generation opportunity to bring such change about”. The only question apparently is “just how radical” such change should be. 

Here are some of the ideas that have been proposed during the week in response to the expenses issue:

·         Reduce the number of MPs to, say, 600 or, say, 400

·         Make the house of lords elected

·         Use primary elections to select candidates for parliament

·         Introduce proportional representation

·         Control the funding of the parties

·         Have fixed term parliaments

·         Have a written constitution

·         Make the commons responsible for choosing select committees

·         Have only cabinet members from outside parliament

·         Elect prime minister with parliamentary electoral college

In the discussion on This Week between David Starkey, Diane Abbot and Michael Portillo, David Cameron emerged as an unlikely candidate for championing change. Brushing aside the shear implausibility of the leader of the Conservative Party initiating any meaningful constitutional change, it was suggested he should go “hell for leather” to formulate some proposals for such change “before the next election” and for setting up a “constitutional convention”. For those of us who wish to see truly radical, but properly considered, reform to our constitution such talk is as depressing as it is frightening.

What none of the participants in this discussion displayed the least awareness of is that the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland is the only democracy in the world where constitutional reforms, major or minor, can be ushered in by exactly the same means which legislation is passed. You want to change the constitution? Fine.  Just put the matter before the House of Commons just like any normal bill, get the Lords to approve it (definitely the most difficult bit) and there you have it – full blown constitutional change. Well, at least, until the next government gets in and decides to change the whole thing again.

Really, it is not worth even considering constitutional change in the Kingdom when any such change is automatically so unstable. In America changing the constitution is a momentous matter and in any case virtually impossible - such is the revered nature of the US Constitution. The nation was built on the idea that the constitution should be above its political running. This came directly from the constitutional genius of Founding Father, James Madison, who had in turn taken it from ancient Rome. The British notion that the standard legislative machinery should be used for constitutional reform would be incomprehensible to Americans - or anyone else. The prospect of the opposition leader cobbling together constitutional changes as a means of catching votes to win an election would be alien to the citizens of any other country. In the Kingdom it can be advocated without the least derision.

The reason why this is possible is, of course, a result of the general ignorance that surrounds constitutional matter here and this follows from the fact that we do not live in a country where our leaders expect us to concern ourselves overly with government and our democratic right to influence it. In our schools there is absolutely no instruction about how the constitution works and the reason why is quite obvious. Our political establishment does not want us to know too much. One of the tasks of the Republican Party must be to aim to correct this defect and make the understanding of constitutional matters a central political concern.

All the suggestions in the above list of constitutional changes would have little effect. They are being put forward as a smokescreen for the fact that the whole constitution needs such a radical shake up.  It is quite right to make the move from merely condemning the MP’s expenses claims to saying that we can only really solve the matter through constitutional reform, but tinkering with things as they are will do nothing. We need a full blown republican constitution with a powerful elected head of state. That way the Parliament would be put beyond the control of the executive just as the United States Congress is constitutionally beyond the control of the President.

A key question we have to ask in moving towards the British Republic is where the authority for framing the new constitution should come from. It can certainly never come from the existing political parties who are all of them so responsible for perpetuating the present malign system with its culture of easy drift into corruption and fiddling (whatever happened to mere sleaze?).  Ultimately the change must spring from popular feeling and that is something which the existing parties have shown that they are out-of-touch with and care little about.

This popular feeling can only find expression through a brand new party. Labour, Conservatives, the LIbDems have proved themselves time and time again to be clapped out instruments in terminal decline. If anyone says that hope only lies with any or all of them, then they are saying there is no hope at all.


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*It is not that Republics can’t change should the long term will of the people desire it, but that on fundamental constitutional issues such as this they only change gradually. Republicans are conservatives (with a small “c”).







































































*This practice has lead over the last few years to an intense crisis for the bank buying the "security" often did not know how well the loan was secured. In a huge number of cases this has been not very well and so the banks who bought the "securities" were taken for billions, such is the level of their incompetence and greed.









































*See P25 The Grip Of Death by Michael Rowbotham published 1997.And up to date figures for April 2008 show HBoS holds just 6% capital against debt "assets". The figure for Barclays is a measly 5.1%. (Moneyweek 2 May 2008. p.4). Exactly how much of this "capital" represents solid "non-toxic" capital assets is a question many would want to ask. The banks themselves are unlikely to know.